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Pearl Identification

PEARL IDENTIFICATION: learning to spot the genuine article

These days, there are so many varieties of pearls out there one can’t be blamed for not knowing where to start! This simple guide will show you how to tell the difference between the major pearl types, the difference between natural pearls, cultured pearls and man-made pearls. 

Natural vs. Cultured Pearls

Natural pearls are wild pearls, formed by the oysters on their own without any human intervention. Typically this is in response to a parasite burrowing inside the animal’s shell, and rarely, bits of sand or debris lodging inside the mollusk while it is filter-feeding. Over time, a pearl is formed as the mollusk coats the invading deitrus with layers of nacre.

The problem with owning wild pearls began long ago; natural oyster beds were being uprooted and destroyed in the search for these lovely gems, and many saltwater pearl oyster populations were on the verge of extinction!

Cultured pearls reversed the trend of endangered oyster populations. Cultured pearls are pearls that are still formed inside the oyster (i.e. the animal still does the majority of the work!), but in this case, with the help of us humans. A mother of pearl bead nucleus or a piece of donor mantle tissue is inserted into the mollusk, which is then allowed to begin its work of pearl sac formation and nacre deposition. Times vary from the operation to harvest, but ranges from 18 months to 4 years depending on the pearl type. 

Culturing pearls takes place all over the world, but the main farming areas are Japan, China, French Polynesia, Australia, the Philippines and these days, Vietnam. 

Synthetic pearls are purely man-made creations, usually a glass or plastic bead coated with thick layers of “essence d’ orient” which is a highly iridescent polymer. Synthetic pearls can be Mallorca pearls, Shell pearls, Swarovski crystal pearls and other lesser-known creations. To learn more about Synthetic pearls visit our Cultured vs Synthetic Pearls page.


To help you identify the different cultured pearl varieties on sight this small primer will list each pearl type’s attributes and commonly recognized features. One of the easiest ways to tell whether a pearl a genuine or not is to look for inclusions or blemishes: Mother Nature always leaves her fingerprints somewhere! Only man-made, synthetic pearls are perfectly blemish-free. 

Akoya Pearls

Cultured Saltwater Akoya pearls are cultured in Japan, China and to a lesser extent, Vietnam. Identifying these pearls is fairly simple. 

Pearls should be perfectly round in shape (although free-form baroque pearls do exist and are available, the vast majority of Akoya pearls found in stores will be perfectly round). They are typically white in color with silver, rose or creamy overtones, but can also be found in Sky Blue, color-treated Blackish Midnight-Blue and Gold. The pearls are smallish in size, ranging from 3.0mm to 9.5mm or so. 

The pearl’s luster is traditionally known for being “mirror-bright” and is often compared to that of a ball bearing, i.e. light sources reflected on the pearl’s surface is going to be very sharp, crisp and highly delineated. 

Common inclusions include wrinkles in the nacre, pin pricks and blinking (viewing the bead nucleus through the nacre layers). 

Tahitian Pearls


Cultured Tahitian pearls are naturally black and charcoal-colored pearls colored with a rainbow of overtones like Peacock, Blue-Green, Green, Rose, Silver and more. These pearls are cultured in the tropical lagoons of French Polynesia. 

Pearl shapes can be perfectly round, symmetrical baroques like ovals or tear-drops, and asymmetrical free-form baroque shapes. Baroque pearls often display bands of circling around their diameters, or wrinkled surface textures.

Ranging in size from 8.0 to 16.0mm or larger, Tahitian pearls are considered some of the larger pearls available in the pearl world. You can tell a pearl is a Tahitian by its size, grey body color and colorful iridescence. 

Common inclusions include pits, pin pricks, scoring of the nacre and mottling or bulleting of the pearl’s surfaces. 

South Sea Pearls

White and Golden South Sea pearls are large, luxurious cultured pearls farmed in Northern Australia and the Philippine Islands. They are characterized by their large sizes, satiny luster and natural icy white or golden hues. 

Pearl shapes, like Tahitian pearls, are perfectly round, symmetrical baroque shapes like ovals and tear-drops and heavily baroque shapes with and without circles. Free form baroques will often display a “wrinkled satin” surface texture. 

Sizes range from 8.0-20.0 mm and up, with an average of 11.0-16.0 mm or so (think size of a quarter!). These are the largest cultured pearls in the world. 

Identify these pearls through their large sizes, subtly glowing luster with slightly blurred light reflections and their unique bright, Silver-white and Golden hues. 

Common inclusions include pits, pin pricks, scoring of the nacre and mottling or bulleting of the pearl’s surfaces. 

Freshwater Pearls

Cultured Freshwater pearls are grown in man-made lakes and ponds in China. These pearls are some of the most prevalent on the market today, as the shell that the pearls are grown in can be nucleated up to 25 times on each side of the mollusk’s shell. That’s a lot of pearls come harvest time!! 

Freshwater pearls have a soft, pastel palette of natural pearl colors: typically white, pink, peach and lavender. These colors are completely natural, with no artificial enhancements and will never discolor or fade over time. Freshwater pearls can (and often are) dyed a myriad of bright, intense colors as well: black, red, sapphire blue, royal purple, lemon yellow and more can be found in many beading stores. These pearls will usually stick out to the eye easily – these are colors not found in nature. 

The pearls range in size from 3.0 – 12.0 mm, with an average size of 7.0-9.5 mm or so. Continuing advances in pearl culturing techniques from China will have us seeing larger, rounder and more lustrous pearls that will rival South Sea pearls in the near future!  

Pearl shapes are generally off-round to round to the eye and oval to egg shapes for necklaces and bracelets. Baroque pearls can be pronounced ovals and tear drops, and heavily baroque/textured pearls are also available: rice crispy pearls, soufflé pearls and Kasumi-style Ripples are among the easiest examples to name. 

Luster is typically softer than that of the Akoya pearl, with slightly blurred reflections visible in their surfaces, and softly diffused edges of reflected light sources. Pearls with metallic luster are newly available on the market and rival the Akoya for sharpness and brightness. 

Common inclusions include white chalky spots in the nacre, mottling of the pearls’ surfaces, small pin pricks and light scoring marks in the  nacre. 

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